Ethical Education

Dr Daniella Forster is helping teachers navigate the ethical dilemmas of the 21st Century school system.

Image of Dr Daniella Forster

With increasing levels of diversity in our society our schools are also diversifying with a range of underlying values and approaches to both life and learning evident across the schooling spectrum. Navigating these differences in a productive way can be extremely difficult for both teachers and school leaders. Dr Daniella Forster’s research in educational ethics is helping to provide opportunities and methods for school communities, especially teachers, to work through the kind of problems that arise when values clash and it is unclear what the right thing to do is.

“These problems manifest as ethical tensions but sometimes also as full blown ethical dilemmas. In this way I am trying to enhance the quality and richness of public dialogue and bring attention to the ethical complexities of education,” Dr Forster said.

After completing degrees in Philosophy and Education, Dr Forster became fascinated by the problem of teacher professionalism, especially the idea of being ethically responsible for the identification, adoption and maintenance of beliefs that enable teaching. Her research now asks what conditions support ethically “good” teaching?

“Teacher misconduct is actually very unusual but what is more significant is the slow ‘creep’ of ethical desensitisation or the hopeless belief that because we are a diverse society, there is no way of distinguishing good moral opinion from bad, and that leads to ‘anything goes’,” she said.

Dr Forster is a senior lecturer teaching ethics in education to fourth year teaching students at the University of Newcastle, which is one of the very few dedicated professional ethics programs in teacher education in Australia.

‘Our ethics program gets deeper into moral decision making than most others with tutorial practice, personal reflection and guided dialogue about ethically hard problems specific to teaching,” Dr Forster said.

“There are such limited opportunities for deeper conversations around really pressing issues when teachers are rushing from one class to another, completing a multitude of administrative tasks, preparing for and assessing student learning under conditions that have intensified the pressure on their profession. Often the urgent tasks override the important ones,” she said.  “The experience of feeling ethical tension at work creates quite a big sense of angst that can stay with a person for a long time and not always come to a resolution.”

“As a teacher educator I want to help my pre-service teachers to navigate these inevitable experiences and competing priorities without burning out, giving up or becoming desensitised.”

“Rather, I want them to have the heart, skills and concepts to generate productive collegial conversations around both subtle and pronounced ethical problems and to appreciate that education is fundamentally value laden.”

Dr Forster has also run professional development programs for teachers and was overwhelmed with large numbers of teachers signing up to a recent Masterclass.

“They are hungry for ethical guidance. Teachers see how difficult these subtle choices are everyday and those teachers who are particularly keyed in to the moral dimensions on schooling can find it very difficult to balance their moral ideals with everyday practice.”

Dr Forster says schools are places of incredible humanity, of care and intelligence; but they are also places where people, both teachers and students can have deep differences, misunderstandings and where the action of blunt policy instruments can cause considerable harm to students, teachers, even parents and broader society.

“It is really important to work out exactly the kind of harm being caused, to whom and by what in order to have a good chance at either preventing it from happening again or rectifying the harm,” Dr Forster said. “Teacher Codes of Ethics and Conduct are a good start, but even the most comprehensive code is incapable of covering all situations a teacher may find herself in, given the particularities of context, relation and historical moment.”

Solving real life ethical dilemmas

Dr Forster leads a research project called Educational Ethics: Dilemmas of Diversity which began by establishing a research methodology to investigate ethical dilemmas in schools and sought to bring philosophy into dialogue with empirical education research in order to describe ethically charged situations in schools.

The project group have interviewed teachers and schools in the Hunter area about the ethical issues they are grappling with, from this they have developed a series of prototype Normative Case Studies based on the issues that arose.

“Normative Case Studies are narratives with real-to-life protagonists facing a complex ethical judgement. They are geared to present the particular local context, to represent people of different roles, values and characteristics facing recognisable problems that local Newcastle/Hunter teachers are dealing with right now,” Dr Forster explains.

“A key issue facing our teachers at the moment is how to properly lead school communities to grow into their changing demographics and to become more inclusive. Newcastle in recent years has experienced an influx of cultural groups that have created a greater diversity of religious, economic, linguistic, and social values simultaneously. Australia is in the process of properly recognising the nation’s First Peoples and this presents a range of ethically charged choices to do with school curriculum, activities and spaces. At the same time there are individuals in Newcastle school communities who are expressing racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric, so there is a challenge about how to prevent further radicalisation, increase belonging and prevent harm to all those involved,” she noted.

The project group will develop the Normative Case Studies on this and other pressing local issues and will include expert responses from practitioners, policy makers, leaders, ethicists and community groups, all for teachers to consider during a guided collegial dialogue and workshops.

“These conversations give a method for unpacking complexity and considering, in a fair and rational way, conflicting positions towards an ethically pragmatic resolution. This works towards enhancing local ethical decision making at school as well as individual moral imaginations,” Dr Forster observed.

“I am really excited about demonstrating the growth of scholarship in educational ethics. I recently edited a section on Educational Ethics in the forthcoming Springer Encyclopedia of Teacher Education. It contains entries explaining issues such as the establishment of codes of ethics in teaching, the moral imagination in teaching, teaching with moral disposition frameworks, descriptive ethical research, empirical research methodologies in educational ethics and teacher free speech,” Dr Forster noted.

There is a difference between promoting inclusive social justice agendas and grappling with ethical dilemmas. Dr Forster lists some examples of various ethical dilemmas that can arise while teaching:

  • Curriculum content, e.g. how should sensitive or controversial curriculum topics be taught?
  • Establishing school values: what are the most ethically robust forms of student discipline?
  • Knowledge boundaries: e.g. should a teacher teach outside their expertise?
  • Professional and personal boundaries: e.g. should teachers be judged 24/7 on their behaviour?
  • Political boundaries: e.g. how much free speech should teachers have?
  • Honouring student needs: how should teachers balance the high needs of one student against those of many students?
  • Surveillance boundaries: e.g. how should teachers protect students’ privacy whilst keeping a close eye on their online safety?

Dr Forster encourages teachers facing ethical dilemmas to reach out and contact her.

“The whole point of this philosophical method is that it’s in conversation with people and it’s something I would like to continue to develop. Humans have been studying ethics and philosophy for hundreds of years yet the ethical experiences of teachers changes and morphs. We can only do this kind of research work in collaboration with teachers,” Dr Forster said.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.